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O' Artful Death    by Sarah Stewart Taylor order for
O' Artful Death
by Sarah Stewart Taylor
Order:  USA  Can
Minotaur, 2003 (2003)

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* *   Reviewed by G. Hall

This year's crop of Agatha nominees for Best First Mysteries includes the enjoyable O' Artful Death. As might be expected from her name, Sweeney St. George is not your ordinary sleuth. She is a six foot tall, redheaded, art history professor, specializing in death rituals and funerary art. There have been several tragic deaths in Sweeney's life, including her father's suicide when she was a child and the recent death of her fiancÚ in an IRA bombing of a London train. This may help explain her rather macabre research specialty, which she calls 'Art as Anthropology. When I study gravestones and things like Victorian death rings or Egyptian funeral practices, I learn a lot about how people felt about death.'

When her lifelong friend Toby visits Sweeney in Boston, he tries hard to tempt her to spend the Christmas holidays with him and his family in Vermont. Having only recently made peace with the loss of her fiancÚ, Sweeney is not up to a happy family visit until Toby shows her a photograph of a very unusual grave sculpture at the cemetery near his family home. The grave is that of a young woman who died under mysterious circumstances in 1890. Greatly intrigued, Sweeney calls one of the woman's descendants, Ruth Kimball, to ask about the sculpture. When she calls back the next day, she learns that the woman died of a gunshot wound shortly after her previous call. Of course, Sweeney then decides that a Vermont holiday is in order.

One of the most interesting features of the book is its setting in Byzantium, once a flourishing New England arts colony (the bookjacket lists Taylor as a descendant of a member of a New Hampshire arts colony, and her skillful depiction of early Byzantium rings true). In the present day, remaining residents are mostly descendants of the original founders, and many still have the colorful personalities you would expect of artists. Sweeney uses her historical research skills to learn from old newspapers and journals about the early residents. This helps the book move smoothly back and forth from present to past, giving it a multi-dimensional feel.

Once Sweeney arrives in Byzantium, she is drawn into investigating both present and past deaths. Ruth Kimball had been attempting to sell part of her land for condo development, an idea abhorrent to the remaining Byzantium residents. So once Ruth's death is judged a homicide, there are multiple suspects. The past mystery fascinates Sweeney even more. She prefers 'academic mysteries, as opposed to human ones. At the end of an academic pursuit there is a satisfying symmetry, complexity to be sure, but an answer that one could hold on to.' Would that modern life was that satisfying!

O' Artful Death is a very satisfying debut novel with a nicely developed plot, an attractive protagonist and a unique setting. Readers will hope that Sweeney returns soon.

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